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Views from Peru’s Inca Trail

The Inca Trail traverses 43 kilometres between Cuzco and Machu Picchu in the Andes mountains in Peru at altitudes ranging from 8000 to 14000 feet. I cannot believe, at 53 years of age, that we are going to do this but we anxiously await the commencement of our adventure.

We undertook this voyage with several concerns.  We knew that the hike required up to 15 kilometres of strenuous trekking a day.  How do you prepare for this?  We are both pretty active on a regular basis, but neither one of us walked more than a few kilometers at a time.  So walking seemed to be the perfect training-and walk we did.

For two months prior to leaving we walked 10 kilometres a day, four days a week, did aerobic workouts in the gym and attended our Tae Kwon Do classes regularly. I lost 25 pounds thinking that the less tonnage I had to haul up the mountain the better.  The walking program started slowly-it took about two hours to go the 10 kilometres.  By the end of August we were covering that distance in just under an hour and a half. We even tried it with full backpacks a few times.

September arrived and we were ready.  Or were we?  One thing we had no way of training for was the altitude. A little education and taking some precautionary measures would certainly give us a better than average chance in the high peaks of the Andes. Most people arrive in Cusco then leave on their trek the following day. I had read that acclimatization to altitude takes a minimum of 36 hours, not 24, so we planned to stay in Cusco, at 12,000 feet, for 2 full days following the day we arrived.

We were immediately advised to drink plenty of water, eat lightly, be careful and drink alcohol very moderately if at all and, generally, move slowly as you adjust to the thinner atmosphere. We were also cautioned to drink plenty of coca tea because it increases the absorption of oxygen in blood, which helps combat altitude sickness. Once on the trail, chewing the coca leaves would accelerate this process. As a final precaution we had some pills prescribed to combat altitude sickness and some Advil gel caps in case we ended up with some sort of brain buster headache.

Kilometre 82

We arrived by van at kilometre 82 of the Inca Trail where we were introduced to our porters and cook. The porters are an amazing group of local mountain men who had been hired to carry tents, tables, chairs, food, water, all camping utensils and dishes, and even our own personal luggage. They each carried about 30 kilograms of weight, and as we would soon learn, all but ran through the mountains to stay ahead of us and have everything ready when we arrived for lunch or at day’s end. All this they do for the equivalent of about three dollars a day. So let’s stop complaining about how miserable our jobs are okay?

The first day on the trail is advertised as being easy, although we were hard pressed to understand exactly from where that notion came. The trail follows a stone pathway undulating along the Urubamba River, climbing ever upward, increasing in steepness and difficulty with each step it seemed. Through rain that varies from a light drizzle to a torrential downpour excitement and anxiety ensue as we are treated to ruins and mountain vistas that we have seen only in our dreams.  After six hours of near torture along fifteen kilometers of rugged trail we pass the village of Wayllabamba and arrive soaked and cold at our Tres Piedras (Three White Stones) campsite.

Open fires are not allowed on the Inca Trail so gathering around the campfire consists of huddling around a propane burner element in an attempt to dry wet clothing and struggle to get warm. It is surprising how comfortable you get removing your clothes in front of strangers when you are soaked to the skin and shivering. After an absolutely amazing meal of cooked rice, vegetables and beef a tent has never felt so good.

If yesterday was an easy hike I do not want to even imagine what today might bring as it is billed as challenging and the most difficult day of the trek. An early morning start saw an increasingly steep trail turn excruciating as we climbed three thousand feet over about six kilometers to Dead Woman’s Pass. We had difficulty breathing, were taking tiny half steps and were resting every hundred feet as we inched our way up to 14,500 feet. To make matters worse, the rain quickly turned to snow – for the first time in many years.

Dead Woman’s Pass

Our guide commented that he had never seen snow in the pass. How accommodating – snow just for the Canadians. As I gazed around through the mist trying to take in the sheer beauty of my surroundings I took some solace in seeing that even the porters were stopping for brief rests.

The balance of the day was a walking prayer that I would stay on my feet as we made our way down a seemingly endless line of knee crushing stone steps. Our guide, Carlos had gone above and beyond the call of duty in loaning Karen his gloves and me a chamois to wrap up my near frozen hands. We, of course, had gloves of our own but they were safely packed away in a backpack being carried by one of the porters miles ahead of us by now.

As we ascended into the Paqaymayu Valley to our campsite, two porters came hustling up the path carrying hot coca tea for us. With the campground in sight below, we sat on a rock in the rain warming and recuperating with thoughts of how incredible these Peruvian people are to look after us so well. As we walked into the camp I ran the days events over quickly in my mind. Altitude sickness pills, some coca leaves to chew on and coca tea to sip on seemed to tip the scales in our favour.  We experienced a little light headedness and slight headaches but generally suffered no ill effects.  We were, however, totally exhausted.

The third day truly is as advertised – unforgettable.

Day three

It was 17 kilometres of hiking which was a major concern at first. Even through our training we had never walked more than 13 and that was on a nice flat road. However, although there did not seem to be more than a hundred yards of flat ground all day, the natural beauty surrounding us took our mind off of the distance ahead. It had finally stopped raining so that in itself was a blessing.

The restored site of Runkuracay, a small Inca watch post, lay about a kilometer above our campsite. From there we headed to the second mountain pass at Qochapata and a stunning view of a mountain lagoon. A short distance ahead lies the incredibly well preserved Inca town of Sayaqmarka. Still trekking at just under 13,000 feet we were no longer bothered by the altitude at all and forged on through the third pass to the well preserved Inca bath site at Phuyupatamarka. Walking through the Inca Tunnel I found it hard to believe that this was carved by hand with a chisel through solid rock.

The hardest part of the day was by far the steps. Numbering well over a thousand it seemed far more than that as we quickly discovered that even with walking sticks the pressure exerted on your knees is extreme. It rapidly got to the point that every step was a cry for help as the burning pain in my knees intensified. This was interrupted every few minutes by the shout of, “Porter!” and we moved over to the wall side of the path to make way for the men in rubber sandals running down the steps with 30 kilograms on their backs. As we stood in agony we watched them disappear down nature’s spiral staircase to the depths below.

Amidst breath taking views of the cloud forest and Amazon Jungle we at last arrive at Winay Wayna, our last camp on the trail. This is the final campsite for everyone on the trail so is very crowded compared to the earlier stops. Completely equipped with showers and a small hotel with a bar, Winay Wayna is time to party for many. The altitude has come to rest around 8,800 feet and it is here that you realize you are going to make it to Machu Picchu, something that was in question a mere 24 hours ago.

First view of Machu Picchu

Just after 5AM on the fourth day we pass through the checkpoint and undergo a fast hike, almost a sprint, through the jungle and cloud forest. The fantastic scenery passes almost unnoticed as dawn breaks and we climb up a final long set of steep steps to Inti Punku, the Sun Gate. As the sun rises above the mountain top we gaze across the valley and there below us is Machu Picchu!

At first glance it seemed a dream to me. How did we do this?  Karen has mild osteoporosis and I have a bit of arthritis.  Even so, we made it through rain for two days, sleet and snow for one day and constant climbing and descending putting a lifetime of pressure on our knees. The sight of the Lost City of the Incas was awe inspiring, but the realization that we had arrived in the steps of the Incas, along the Inca Trail, made us appreciate just how fortunate we were to be here. Turning back and not completing the trek had never been an option for us. Maybe it’s because what you will encounter is unknown at the time but it’s amazing what you can do when you have to.

More by Eric Whitehead in his book ‘Then there Was One‘.

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